Women and Formula One: finally time to compete?

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Over 1,000 drivers have competed in a Formula One Grand Prix, but only two have been women. 

Nevertheless, many are hoping to see this change – none more so than Susie Wolff, who has just been appointed managing director of the Formula One Academy. Could this be what finally paves the way for more women competing in F1?

The history of women competing in F1 started in the 1950s. Italian born Maria Teresa de Filippis was the first woman to race in a Formula One Grand Prix and competed five times between 1958 and 1959. At the time, fighting for her place in a completely male-dominated sport was incredibly difficult and she faced many barriers. 

Before the French Grand Prix in 1958, the race director banned her from racing saying, “the only helmet a woman should wear is the one at the hairdresser’s”.  She retired from the sport soon after. 

Following in her footsteps was Maria Grazia Lombardi who remains the only woman to have scored points in Formula One, which she achieved at the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix.

The F1 Academy hopes to encourage more girls to follow the example which these women set. It is an all-female driver category aiming to develop and prepare young female drivers to progress to higher levels of competition. Consisting of 15 cars run by five current F2 and F3 teams, there will be 21 races in total at 7 events, including a season finale alongside a Formula One weekend in Austin. 

Due to funding often being cited as a reason there are not more women on the grids of higher-level motorsport, F1 will subsidise the costs of each car with a budget of £130,000 and the drivers will have to match that total with their own backing.

The hope is that this will break the negative cycle within which women in motorsport seem to be trapped. As there are very few women racing at high levels, young girls are not seeing themselves represented and therefore are not taking up an interest. 

The history of women competing in F1 started in the 1950s

Unfortunately, with the way motorsport is structured, it is not a sport which can be entered later in life, but instead must be started at a very young age to allow time to work up through its various levels. Young girls need to see themselves represented in the sport to encourage them to take up karting, and the F1 Academy is hoping to show this representation.

Susie Wolff has herself raced at high levels and hopes to inspire young girls to believe they are able to do the same.  She started her racing career in karting, as many others do, before progressing on to Formula Renault, Formula Three and then racing for Mercedes-Benz in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM). 

The Scot reached the pinnacle in her racing career in 2012 when she signed for Williams in Formula One. In 2014 she drove in Free Practice One at the British Grand Prix, making her the first woman to drive in an official Formula One session in over two decades. 

She retired from racing in 2015, however her engagement in the motorsport world did not stop there. In 2018 she joined Venturi racing in Formula E as team principal and in 2021 was promoted to the role of CEO. 

In her aims to inspire women, Wolff helped form ‘Dare To Be Different’ in 2016, a non-profit organisation which aims to increase female participation in all aspects of the motorsport industry. It has since joined with ‘FIA Girls on Track’, which introduces girls between the ages of eight and 18 to the world of motorsport. 

Within the realm of non-profit organisations hoping to encourage girls in motorsport, there is also ‘More Than Equal’, which was co-founded by former Formula One driver David Coulthard and entrepreneur Karel Komarek.

Their aim is “finding the first female F1 Drivers World Champion”, which they hope to do by searching globally for top female racing talent and then providing support and training equal to what promising male drivers receive.

There is some hope, with young female drivers starting to be seen in the pipeline. 

Young girls need to see themselves represented in the sport to encourage them to take up karting, and the F1 Academy is hoping to show this representation

The most well-known in probably Jamie Chadwick. The 24-year-old from Bath is a 3-time W series champion and has recently been named in the Forbes 30 under 30 list in the sports and games category. She is currently a development driver for Williams Formula One Team. 

Maya Weug is another notable and ascending name. She has recently become the first ever female driver to have become a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy and is currently competing in the Italian F4 Championship.

Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go and women continue to face sexism within the sport, often in relation to their physical abilities. In a 2019 interview, Red Bull team consultant Helmut Marko suggested that women are not strong or aggressive enough to race in Formula One and in 2016 the then Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone said women will never be taken seriously in F1 because they aren’t strong enough.

However, this argument falls flat. There are many female jet fighter pilots who endure stronger G-force than in racing, and 75 women have been to space which also submits them to high G-force levels.

Overall, there is no real reason for women not to be competing in Formula One, other than the lack of opportunities for them to do so. 

Susie Wolff and the F1 Academy are hoping to change this; however, it is not something that can be fixed quickly and it will take time to get successful female drivers coming up through the pipeline in different championships.

Image: Crazylenny2 via Flickr

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